From Awareness to Action: A Sustainable Future for Museums | Recap of the 2023 International Museum Day Discussion

On the occasion of the 2023 International Museum Day, with the annual theme of “Museums, Sustainability and Wellbeing,” on the evening of May 17th, Art News/Chinese Edition and the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art invited Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun, founders of the “Water System Project,” Chen Xiaoyang, Deputy Director of the Art Museum of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, Huang Mi, Director of the Exhibition Department of the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, and Paul Frèches, the representative of the Pompidou Center in China and the overall coordinator of the Pompidou Center X West Bank Art Museum project, to discuss the topic of “Sustainable Museums, Sustainable Art.” The discussion was moderated by Ye Ying, editor-in-chief of Art News/Chinese Edition.

Since the launch of the “Creative Empowerment” discussion series in collaboration with Chanel in 2020, Art News/Chinese Edition has partnered with multiple art institutions in China to hold nine diverse themed discussion events. Building on this foundation, the new annual Cultural Program launched in 2023 will initiate a series of publishing, forum, and education projects focusing on sustainable development and social responsibility, as well as supporting female artists and the development of the new generation. This “Sustainable Museums, Sustainable Art” discussion is the first public exchange and discussion of the annual Cultural Program in 2023.


The theme of the discussion is “Sustainable Museums, Sustainable Art”. Since 2020, International Museum Day has supported a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations every year. This year, the focus is on three of them: “Good Health and Well-being,” “Climate Action,” and “Life on Land,” responding to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the United Nations in 2015. The agenda sets 17 sustainable development goals, calling for joint action to eliminate poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and future of all people.

According to the United Nations’ definition of “sustainable development” in the Sustainable Development Agenda:

“Sustainable development refers to development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

“Sustainable development requires collective efforts to build a future that is inclusive, sustainable, and resilient for both humanity and the Earth. To achieve sustainable development, the three core elements of economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection must be coordinated. These factors are interrelated and essential to the well-being of individuals and society.”

“Eliminating all forms and dimensions of poverty is an inevitable requirement for achieving sustainable development. To this end, sustainable, inclusive, and equitable economic growth must be promoted to create more opportunities for everyone, reduce inequality, improve basic living standards, promote social fairness and inclusiveness, and promote comprehensive and sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems.”

The Sustainable Development Goals Summit in September 2019 called for a “Decade of Action” to achieve sustainable development and pledged to mobilize funds, increase national action, and enhance institutional capacity. As non-profit permanent institutions serving society, museums absorb and penetrate into the capillaries of local communities, reaching the public and having cohesion and appeal in establishing social sustainability. The sustainable transformation of museums not only requires the spontaneous awareness of institutions, the setting of short-term and long-term sustainable goals, but also requires policy guidance, funding assistance, and support from art practitioners and the public.

Ecological Art and Community Engagement Practices Rooted in Water Systems

The practice of artists and founders of the “Water System Project,” Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun, began at the Dujiangyan Irrigation System in Sichuan. The Min River runs through the Hengduan Mountains in the eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, then enters the Chengdu Plain after passing through the Longmen Mountains. In ancient times, people used the height difference between the riverbed and the plain in front of the mountain, and utilized advanced water conservancy technology to create the Dujiangyan irrigation system.

Chen Jianjun mentioned in the discussion that what people can see now in Dujiangyan is a place that has become a national key cultural relic protection unit and a tourist attraction. However, this is not the historical, constantly changing, and diverse Dujiangyan. “Dujiangyan is plural, experiencing long-term historical changes, rather than being fixed and unchanging.”

The “Distribution Map” (2022) handwritten by the artists shows the cooperative relationship between humans and rivers, such as spatial allocation and management methods, and how the technology that cleverly uses natural mechanisms is developed. “This technology is obviously different from the modern technology governance methods commonly used. Especially when facing climate and disasters, the long history of water management, systems, and agriculture is worth our re-understanding.”

Chen Jianjun also mentioned another “Distribution Map” drawn in the 1970s; however, this map has completely exceeded the life limit that this ancient irrigation system can bear. Humans, as a geological force, continue to change the earth and have irreversible effects on it.

Chen Jianjun further elaborated on the concept of “water system”: “The ‘water’ in the water system is a material ecology, and the ‘system’ is a complex realization of the interaction between material ecology and human society in a specific historical period. It is an intermediate relationship that starts from a hollow space. This relationship develops from the entangled space between ‘water’ and the current social and environmental reality of human beings. It is neither a reactive passive mode to protect ‘water,’ nor a conservative view that only emphasizes the survival of human society.”


Water System Shelter #1, 2019-2020, COSMOPOLIS #2.0

Starting with on-site investigations, Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun spent a long time practicing and exploring the specific geological space and social networks around the Dujiangyan water system. During their journey upstream along the Dujiangyan water system, they collaborated with various parties, including local residents and participants from related disciplines. The upper reaches of the Minjiang River are inhabited by Qiang and Tibetan people. Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun have been paying attention to the policies and post-disaster reconstruction brought about by the government after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, as well as their current relationships with various aspects. For the Qiang people living here, everything here affects their lives and grows in that community. The “Water System Shelter #2” exhibited at the 13th Shanghai Biennale was completed with old tents and building materials used by the Qiang people as research objects. The exhibited documents and videos were collected and studied through practice with scientists and geologists.

During the sharing session, Cao Minghao took the audience to the upper reaches of the Minjiang River and shared the process and thinking of working with grassland herdsmen in “Water System Shelter #3”. By studying grassland restoration projects, desertification, and black soil beach management, they explored ecological problems caused by global climate change and grassland geological rheology. Cao Minghao mentioned that desertification and black soil beach management are methods used by herdsmen on the grassland, combining local natural wisdom with traditional and modern technology to restore and protect the grassland ecology that herdsmen, animals, and plants rely on for survival. By observing the methods adopted by herdsmen and Qiang people in the face of uncertainty in the environment, the artist also saw a way to build a network of action and thought to respond to global challenges.

The “Black Tent Conference” is a series of dialogues initiated by Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun. The “black tent” is a living space woven from yak hair by herdsmen for nomadic migration. Artists and theorists gather in the black tent to collectively think and exchange ideas about ecological issues and response methods. In the long-term practice of the “Water System Plan,” Cao Minghao and Chen Jianjun also worked with geologists, anthropologists, herdsmen, and ecologists to initiate publishing projects and generate a comprehensive survival value system based on desertification and black soil beach management. The “Water System School” project builds discussions related to material, species, ecological knowledge, and shelter technology.

640-5Black Tent Meeting #1

Emergence of Content: Making Sustainability More Visible

Huang Mi, Director of the Exhibition Department of the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, shared the museum’s sustainable practices in exhibition and event planning. The 13th Shanghai Biennale took “water” as its curatorial theme and language, interpreting it through three sections: “Wet Operating,” “Ecological Alliance,” and “An Exhibition” in a gradually strengthening performance. The Biennale demonstrated how collectives can embody and manifest themselves through “water,” surpassing narrative modes centered on humans and nations, and launching a “permeable” practice. During the “water” period, the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art initiated a “water walk,” inviting people to explore the disappeared waterways of Shanghai and combining it with their daily walking, creating new and overlapping memories of ShanghaiHuang Mi, Director of the Exhibition Department of the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art

The “New Cultural Producers” project, jointly launched by the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chanel Culture Foundation in 2021, aims to provide a platform for cultural explorers and creators with a cultural vision to showcase and express themselves. The first season of cultural producers, “Craftsmanship Revival,” focuses on explorers who use Chinese handicrafts to activate contemporary design, arousing people’s attention to the gradually declining handicrafts in a society of mechanized mass production.
“New Culture Producer” Season 1 “Crafts Revival” – “Breaking Through the Barriers of Time: Journey Through the Ages” exhibition is currently on display. Chen Xiaoyang, the deputy director of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts Museum, started by discussing the unique geographical location of Guangzhou, where the museum is located. “Guangzhou is a central city in southern China with a history of over 2,000 years of facing international openness. The subtropical ecology and cultural traditions of this region have close geographical ties with neighboring Southeast Asia. Whether in the past or present, the exchange and interaction between regions are more frequent and complex than in other regions of China.” The Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts Museum considers the diversity and fluidity of cultural ecology in a cross-border context and carries out practical content.

Chen Xiaoyang shared four paths that the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts Museum takes in terms of ecological reflection and participatory practice, from concept to action: “First, in the exhibition, we use species and environment to construct symbolic themes and weave clues to find curatorial themes and establish interpretation entry points for dialogue with the works. Second, we reflect and dialogue with cross-disciplinary cooperation through the works. Third, we establish awareness of exhibition technology issues and sustainable practices. Fourth, the museum supports community practice.”

The “Pan-Southeast Asia Triennial Exhibition” at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts Museum attempts to use the reality of the “Pan-Southeast Asia” region being squeezed into different sections as a starting point for artistic reflection on multiple marginal states, opening up the main thinking and narrative of contemporary art creation in non-Western regions of Asia and the world. The exhibition “Durian Durian: Regional Art Research as Methodology” uses the Southeast Asian representative fruit durian as a metaphor for the proposition of lingering and dispersed ethnic groups, ecological landscapes, family memories, and other topics, presenting the fluid and complex cross-cultural blending state of the post-globalization era.

In terms of interdisciplinary collaboration, Chen Xiaoyang mentioned, “The creation of ecological art presents itself in various forms today. Many artists collaborate with scientists, musicians, dancers, playwrights, local residents, and even other species at certain historical nodes to jointly discuss the ecological crisis and convey feelings and thoughts through the power of art.”

Since 2019, Art News/Chinese Edition has published annual special editions related to climate, ecology, and species. In 2021, they also held a forum at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art titled “The Green Renaissance That Is Coming,” inviting artists, ecologists, and environmental experts to discuss the relationship between art and all things. In 2022, they collaborated with the Yunnan Contemporary Art Museum to curate the exhibition “The Language of Mushrooms: The Interconnected Network of All Things” to discuss how mushrooms and fungi affect human thinking and lifestyle, as well as the impact of climate change on the survival environment of species in the wild mushroom kingdom.

In 2023, Art News/Chinese Edition launched the “Seeds of Sustainability” education program and initiated the “Xiangshan School” joint learning project with the Cross-Media College of China Academy of Art. They recruited proposals for creative works related to ecology and the environment from university students nationwide and invited domestic and foreign ecological thinkers, curators, artists, architects, and ecologists as mentors to inspire the younger generation’s understanding of sustainability.

The “Waste-Free Art Museum”:

Making Sustainability a Continuous Action

The implementation of practical emission reduction measures, regional and global calls to action, and alliances are the main ways museums strive to achieve sustainable transformation. In this forum, three speakers from different institutions shared their strategies and actions towards sustainable transformation.

The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, formerly known as the Nanshi Power Plant established in 1897, witnessed the rise of China’s industrial society. Today, the museum has installed solar panels on its roof, and its air conditioning system is powered by the natural water source of the Huangpu River and geothermal energy.

640-11Solar panels on the roof of the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (PSA)

In her presentation, Huang Mi talked about sustainable exhibition design in the context of “Craftsmanship Revival”: “The existence of exhibition space is often temporary, and the time between dismantling and setting up is extremely short, which points to a fast and low-cost way of space separation and construction: light steel keel-gypsum board-latex paint wall. This construction method can only rely on destructive dismantling during the dismantling of the exhibition, resulting in a large amount of waste and cumbersome cleaning. ‘Back to the Future’ invited architect Luo Yujie to use paper as the main material for the exhibition, trying to avoid such a ‘wasteful construction’ by using highly recyclable corrugated cardboard for the assembly of exhibition stands and walls. The claimed corrugated cardboard modules will be transformed into daily functional items such as mobile cabinets and workbenches, or become materials for exhibition display in the next exhibition hall, thus minimizing the production of non-recyclable waste and debris from exhibitions.”

The Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art also recycles oversized outdoor art museum posters that have expired due to the closure of exhibitions. After disinfection and design, one outdoor poster can be made into more than 100 tote bags. The raw materials for the first batch of tote bags came from the exhibition poster of “Wang Xingwei in Shanghai 2002-2008” that ended last year.
On the left is the poster for the exhibition “Wang Xingwei in Shanghai 2002-2008,” and on the right is a tote bag made from recycled posters. Chen Xiaoyang shared how the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts Museum practices sustainable exhibition techniques, aiming to become a “zero-waste museum.” “Contemporary art exhibitions require a lot of special constructions and various types of booths, so we try to reuse them as much as possible in multiple exhibitions and consider this in the exhibition space design process.” The museum also uses easily combinable and changeable materials like wooden pallets. “Unused materials and leftover prints from exhibitions are given to young artists in nearby universities or used in small exhibitions in alternative spaces, except for backups.”

At the exhibition “Connecting Threads: Worktable,” held at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts University City Art Museum in 2023, Paul Frèches, the representative of the Pompidou Art Center in China and the overall coordinator of the Pompidou Art Center × West Bank Art Museum project, introduced the sustainable management system framework of the Pompidou Art Center on-site.

Paul Frèches, the representative of the Pompidou Art Center in China and the overall coordinator of the Pompidou Center × West Bank Art Museum project, first shared with everyone the EU and France’s policies and legal background on sustainable development. The EU’s main goal is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, with a mid-term target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. The French government voted in 2019 to pass the new Climate and Energy Law, which established the framework for the entire country’s climate change and sustainable development.

Frèches mentioned that environmental protection and sustainability have always been at the core of the Pompidou Art Center. The COVID-19 pandemic that began at the end of 2019 and the seven-month closure from 2020 to 2021 prompted the Pompidou Art Center to think systematically about how to take action. About 50 employees participated in a three-month internal collective discussion, and the library, content projects, communication, and management teams evaluated the Pompidou’s sustainability. “The result of this internal discussion is that we have identified two key points for our sustainable development strategy. The first is to improve practices and habits, and the second is to raise public awareness and sensitivity to sustainable development.” In addition, the Pompidou Art Center has identified five areas of action: raising public awareness through a series of cultural activities, improving sustainability in exhibition and performance planning and production, building renovation, improving public tendering and procurement processes, and cultivating daily environmental actions and habits.

In 2019, the Pompidou Art Center conducted a carbon footprint assessment. The carbon footprint generated by exhibitions and event organization accounted for 15%, while the carbon footprint generated by buildings was as high as 40%. This assessment did not include data on the carbon footprint generated by audience transportation and artwork transportation. Based on this carbon footprint assessment, the Pompidou Art Center has established 15 key targets for 2021-2023, including “becoming a center for creating and thinking about ecological issues,” “highlighting works related to the environment in the collection,” and “achieving resource recycling in exhibition, performance, and other activity planning.”

15 Key Goals for the Pompidou Center from 2021 to 2023, Shared by Pauline

The main exhibition hall of the Pompidou Center will be temporarily closed from 2026 to 2029 as part of its sustainable development strategy. During this period, the center will undergo building renovations, removal of harmful materials, and improvement of facilities to reduce energy consumption by 40% compared to before the renovation. In terms of public bidding and procurement, all suppliers of the Pompidou Center must provide an environmental assessment report for their products or services, and sustainable development clauses have been strengthened in all procurement contracts.

Pauline also shared how the Pompidou Center cultivates an environmentally friendly culture in its daily work, such as encouraging employees to use eco-friendly transportation and reducing electronic pollution.

This theme discussion focuses more on the practices of artists, sustainable content planning for museums, and spontaneous sustainable actions in operations. However, the calculation of carbon emissions and footprints for museums and art institutions is almost non-existent in China. Ying Ye mentioned, “Tonight’s discussion is a new beginning, whether it is the guidance of sustainable policies or the financial support for institutions to undergo sustainable transformation, these structural changes still need to be developed.”

The Key Stage of Sustainable Development in the Next Decade

The 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), which will be held in Egypt in 2022, pointed out that 2015 to 2022 may be the warmest eight years on record. The world has experienced unprecedented glacier loss, frequent extreme weather in various regions, and destructive droughts, floods, and cyclones have caused extensive damage and loss of life in many parts of the world.
The “Blue Book of China’s Climate Change (2022)” released by the National Climate Center of China shows that the global warming trend is still continuing. In 2021, multiple climate change indicators in China, such as the average temperature of landmarks, coastal sea levels, and the thickness of the active layer of permafrost, broke observation records.

The United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022” warns that “our first-line opportunity to avoid climate disasters is slipping away.” By 2100, sea levels are expected to rise by 30-60 centimeters, and by 2030, droughts will displace 700 million people. From 2015 to 2030, large-scale disasters are expected to increase by 40%. The report also points out that biodiversity has been largely overlooked in the recovery spending of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The three-year public health crisis has become an opportunity for us to reflect on our coexistence with the earth. Shaping a sustainable future has become an urgent issue. Sustainability in the next decade not only means a shift in societal values but also how we rethink our relationship with nature and all things. From raising awareness of sustainability, increasing sustainable knowledge, to taking sustainable actions, the theme discussion of “Sustainable Museums, Sustainable Art” is a prelude to future change.